For many years, I lived in New Orleans. At the time of this writing, I live in New Orleans. I moved here because it seemed like a thing to do. There is no question, it was A thing to do. Coming from Washington State, I said to myself:
“Hey, you know what’s a good idea? Moving to a part of the country where you have difficulty relating to anybody, or understanding the culture, since you can barely do that in the place where you’re from.”
And so, omitting the entire part of the story where he drives to New Orleans with his partner, he arrives in New Orleans, moving into an unremarkable shotgun house with a remarkable bearded guy from Connecticut.*
Life in New Orleans was sure to be a treat. I quickly established friendly ties with all of the cockroaches in my neighborhood. We became so close that on some occasions, I’m pretty sure we got to first base. But they definitely made themselves comfortable in my home, and I felt completely at-ease screaming at them and throwing shoes like one might throw a grenade, attempting to end their interminable lives.
I also felt right at home with my neighbors. In New Orleans, people spend an unparalleled amount of time on their porches. If you have a notion in your mind now of people puttering around their stoops, crafting, or “doing” anything, you may now stuff that away and replace it with an image of 1-3 people sitting motionless and sweaty on a vacant porch, doing nothing. Bags of sweaty meat.
“What are they doing there? Are they okay? Is there something going on with them, medically?” I wondered aloud, loudly so they could hear.
I later lived in different neighborhoods and I assure you, this was not a one-off of my neighbors in a specific part of town. This feature of home-life of locals is part of the world of New Orleans. Of course, this practice of sitting-until-death-approaches is peppered with occasional blips of activity, if I am to be truthful. Variations on this theme include:
- Sitting with alcohol and talking about:
- What the weather “is gonna do”
- Sitting and shouting at your neighbors re: the weather
- Sitting and blasting the music of your choice upon the neighbors
So generally, neighborhood life was warm and inclusive. I did not have chairs on my front porch, nor could I possibly sit still long enough to facilitate a level of repose sufficient to pass as a New Orleanian, but I appreciated this community-producing facet of life in the city.
But of course, the description of a fresh human soul moving to New Orleans is useless without a description of their take on the pageantry and festivals. I think what most people don’t realize about New Orleans, is that there are really only three or so relevant stages of the year. I will enumerate them…NOW.
1. Any Time That is NOT Summer/Mardi Gras
This is the time of the year from March to June or so, and then again from October to February or so. It’s the time when locals celebrate the approximately 300 additional festivals that are not mardi gras. Some festivals include:
Po’ Boy Fest, Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, the Running of the Bulls (roller derby girls as bulls, laying waste to the wasted), Southern Decadence, St. Patrick’s Day (way drunker and bigger than Dublin), Halloween, Mid-Summer Mardi Gras, Bayou Boogaloo, Essence Fest, Sorrow fest, Shame fest, Rusted Knife fest, Sexual Piñata fest, Frack fest, festival of the immobilized escalator, and tons of others. This doesn’t even mention the fact that there is a parade every sunday that shuts down the streets, or that most of the time at the grocery store I see at least 2 fire-dancers and a stilt-walker. And let’s not forget the nightly festival in my house, Dream Fest.
If this sounds like a lot of festival planning and partying, you have been paying attention and are fairly astute. With a festival nearly every weekend, coupled with New Orleans’ tacit-to-explicit endorsement of over-eating and over-drinking, it’s fairly easy for a person to wake up in a pile of their own filth and wonder where their life went wrong just about every weekend. Drinking is to New Orleans as saying “dude” is to most of California: it’s there, it’s not going away, and you can abstain, but you’ll have to work had to find niches where your self-important obstinance is tolerated.
Most festivals involve parades, and all parades involve some amount of costuming. This is an aspect of New Orleans’ culture that I’ve always found particularly challenging. Given the choice between spending hours laboring on a sweaty and flashy costume to wear once and draw attention to myself, or to sit quietly and reflect on the composition of the universe, I would mostly choose the latter. However, there’s no point in living in New Orleans if you’re going to be a wet-blanket, so it’s off to the parades for you, young man. Here’s a breakdown of what you can anticipate, in this order:
- Sensory overload and distinct pleasure at the variety of color and exuberance
- Gradual realization that you aren’t contributing to the “festival” and feeling like a strange, out-of-place creature
- An attempt to rationalize your lack of participation by acknowledging that festivals cannot exist without spectators
- The failure of that story to stick, leaving you feeling uncomfortable, like some kind of loathsome festival-leech
- Your returning home to read or knit
I mean, don’t get me wrong, there have definitely been festivals where I had a great time and didn’t make everyone feel uncomfortable by being a sullen specter. One must either travel with a posse to bolster each other, or be exceptionally adept and confident at meeting groups of loud, glitter-spangled strangers.
2. Pre-Mardi Gras and Mardi Gras
Let me begin by saying as a still relatively-uninitiated outsider, my perspective on this chunk of the year is highly subjective to my own lack of experience, as if that wasn’t obvious. AHEM.
Mardi Gras really begins about a month before Mardi Gras. Symptoms that you are indeed, living in this dreamscape include:
- The pervasive aroma and presence of King Cake, a ring-shaped cake with a baby hidden inside. Why is there a baby in there? I don’t know, look it up.
- The pervasive sound of marching bands practicing in the distance, or occasionally seemingly inside your living room
- The pervasive sight of feathers, glitter, skin, and sequins (more than normal)
- A flood of emails and/or phone calls from people you know fairly well seeing if you still live in New Orleans and can they come stay?
Basically, if New Orleans has a giant spiritual/magical/drunken energy that acts as a background hum, in the month before Mardi Gras, some giant hand is slowly cranking the volume up, forcing the pleasant strangeness into all-out sensory bludgeoning. This results in two varieties of people:
- People that get dressed up and weird
- People that leave town
The general large-scale parading begins well in advance of Fat Tuesday, and I would imagine is responsible for 10% of the nation’s annual headaches, and 50% of the nation’s garbage. This is because the parades are largely about throwing beads and other garbage at children and drunk people that have come to appear highly similar to children. I have been the latter many times. The allure of catching the attention of a masked parader on a float is strong, and it will make a person act like a desperate idiot to just get those useless trinkets. Upon acquiring and taking your beads home, you are free to spend the remainder of the year trying to remind yourself to take them to that one Whole Foods that has a bead recycling thing, but then you forget, so they just sit there, contributing nothing to your life.
The reality, of course, is that when the thousands of drunk people throw garbage to the tens of thousands of desperate and bloodthirsty parade goers (also drunk/more drunk), there is an understandably sloppy toss, and a strong probability of said garbage being caught be either a tree or the ground. And ain’t nobody got time or low-enough self-esteem to pick up beads that have touched the vomit-riddled ground, and thus, garbage is born. The morning after a big parade leaves a scene that makes a pleasant city street literally look like the inside of a college dorm after a rager, the kind of dorm where all you can do is shuffle through the garbage in a sort of stupor and consider calling your mom for life advice.
Fortunately, the city of New Orleans has systems in place to take care of this issue: They simply bulldoze it away, probably off into the gulf of mexico for all the aquatic life to enjoy.
Repeat this decadent and carnival-esque scene with growing frequency until you no longer really know who you are, and you have discovered the dark heart of New Orleans.
3. The Endless Wasteland of Summer
As a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest, I am no stranger to feeling adverse emotional effects from the weather. A string of rainy days (or weeks) is all it takes to transform me from Optimist Prime to a black-hole from which no light can escape.
Part of my journey to New Orleans was to escape this difficulty.
“It will be sunny, and I will make art and music that’s sunny, too. Maybe I can stop using all these minor chords now.” I thought.
I soon realized that New Orleans has it’s own annual fight for emotional survival in the form of the antagonizing sun. Maybe this is a fairly obvious statement for those who have lived with extreme heat. Or maybe it is just hyperbolic tripe from a wimpy yankee. Either way, there are few festivals to be had in the summer, no songs to be sung, and few reasons to live, except to make it back to Mardi Gras.
Many businesses take a vacation and close up during the summer. As the mind-melting heat of the day is only mitigated by terror-inducing lightning storms, New Orleans quickly turns into a fever dream of heightened irritability and hermetic shut-ins. Perhaps my wallet has just never afforded me the capability of living in a fancy house with “real AC”, but all of my summer days are constructed around the hours between 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM, when, no matter how hard I crank the Air Conditioning, and no matter how many layers I remove, and no matter how much coffee I drink, all I can do is transform into a low-energy blob that writhes around in it’s sweaty fatigue only to fall asleep on the floor and wake up disoriented. This is how summer makes fools of us all.
Letting the Good Times Roll
“Wow, that sounds pretty wild!” You cry. “Is New Orleans for me?”
I don’t know. Maybe! Probably! But just make sure you like jazz, or you can at least pretend to like jazz. Also, bring a raincoat. And…let’s see, what else? In truth, there is really no shortage of things to love about New Orleans and Louisiana, and it’s kind of too bad that, like many places, it gets reduced to “Bourbon Street” and Mardi Gras. It actually has a lot of crazy theatre, unique food, and music. But also it’s probably going to be underwater in like 3 years, so you should probably come now.
*Jack was remarkable because Jack was as departed from reality as anyone could be while still being able to be really thoughtful and hold a job. His room had only a few paintings on the walls, a five dollar card table with a really nice computer on it, and a mattress on the floor. He once made a spear to lay siege to the cockroaches.